Like Christopher Columbus and Meriwether Lewis, Brian Sniatkowsky is an intrepid explorer. Only instead of discovering new territory, Sniatkowsky, a computer programmer from Kinnelon, N.J., finds Tupperware containers filled with plastic action figures, CDs, and Silly Putty. More than 50,000 of these peculiar prizes are stashed around the world by devotees of a high-tech treasure hunt called geocaching or GPS stashing. Finding your quarry using a handheld global positioning system receiver or GPSr is a popular new pastime. All you need is a little technical knowhow and a sense of adventure.
This is an activity where the spoils are secondary to the thrill of discovery. The sport dates from May, 2000, when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order making GPS signals available for civilian use. The ability to receive GPS signals emitted from orbiting military satellites allows you to pinpoint where you are anywhere on earth.
To find a cache or stash, you need to buy a GPSr for $100 to $800. Although you might like the mapping and memory features of the high-end models, they won't make you any more successful at locating a stash. Make sure that whatever GPSr you choose has a battery life of at least 20 hours and a wristband or lanyard, so you won't drop it in high grass or water. Enthusiasts, known as cachers, recommend the Magellan and Garmin (GRMN) (GRMN) brands for their sturdiness and dependability.
Next, you need cache clues. A handful of Web sites list the latitude and longitude coordinates of stashes. The most popular is www.geocaching.com, but you can also go to navicache.com and brillig.com/geocaching/. Just enter the state, city, or Zip Code where you want to find a cache. Caches are hidden in urban as well as wilderness areas. Some may even be underwater and require scuba gear to retrieve. The level of difficulty is rated on a scale of 1 to 5. A cache in the Saudi desert is a 5.
Once you input the coordinates, your GPSr will tell you how far the cache is and point you in the right direction. Your receiver will guide you to within 20 feet of the stash. "Then, intuition takes over," says Jenn Seva-Kutch, a project manager at the Edward Lowe Foundation in Reading, Pa., which helps entrepreneurs. She began geocaching after she won a GPSr in a December, 2001 raffle. Caches are often hidden under bushes or in tree stumps.
Once you find a cache, you can take out one item, provided you add something else. Typical contributions include toys, software, books, and trading cards. Nothing should be edible, as critters will get to it first. There will also be a logbook to sign. When you return home, you'll need to go back to the Web site where the stash's coordinates are posted and tell others that you found it.
Geocaching can be a leisurely individual pursuit or a competition to see who can find the most stashes in the shortest time. Either way, cachers say, treasure hunting with a GPSr is more chic than with a metal detector. By Kate Murphy